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Jacksonville's Black Leaders React To JEA Investigation

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JEA
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Leaders in Jacksonville’s African-American community are reacting to racially-insensitive emails that were circulated among JEA employees.

The emails came to light at the same time the public utility is being federally investigated for alleged racial discrimination in hiring.

It’s been more than a month since WJCT first reported five JEA employees have filed racial discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

As part of our investigation, racially insensitive email chains have surfaced. They were shared among other JEA employees, and JEA says they violate nondiscrimination policies.

Community activist Ben Frazier said he’s not surprised.

“There are those of us — the old timers — people born and raised in this town, who’ve long known the story of nepotism and cronyism in hiring at JEA,” he said.

Frazier said he’s planning to organize and voice displeasure at City Hall.

Jacksonville NAACP President Isaiah Rumlin called the complaints and emails “very disturbing.”

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“From talking with members of the group I’ve met with in the past, I don't know whether they were aware of these emails or not, but just based on the fact as it relates to what they have told me and the information that’s been given to us, it appears that JEA has a serious problem as it relates to race,” he said.

Rumlin, recently appointed as chair of the Jacksonville Transit Authority Board, said employees came to him him in May before making their complaints public. He said he’s still deciding how to proceed.

Jacksonville City Councilman Garrett Dennis, who represents some of the employees, said the men also approached him around the same time.

“If I’m going to go out there and be an advocate and help change the culture, I want to go with facts. I don’t want to go with emotions or perceptions, but facts,” he said.

Dennis said he’s been meeting with JEA officials monthly since May, though a JEA spokeswoman said they’ve met just twice.

The complainants said they went to the press because they felt Rumlin and Dennis were dragging their feet.

Another black leader is remaining silent on the investigation altogether. First Timothy Baptist Church Pastor Fred Newbill did not respond to numerous requests for comment. Newbill is being considered for a seat on JEA’s board. Newbill also had demanded the resignation of Circuit Judge Mark Hulsey for allegedly making racist remarks.

The State Judicial Qualifying Commission did find the complaints against Judge Hulsey have merit.

Reporter Ryan Benk can be reached at rbenk@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter @RyanMichaelBenk.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.